Dream Theme Gardens
Try your hand at planting a theme garden and enjoy flowers for cutting and sharing, herbs and vegetables for cooking, or the sight of a moon garden illuminated at night
Louis Payne, a dedicated dahlia gardener living in Shelbyville, knows that just one bloom of this showy flower “makes a nice neighborly act.” And in Maysville, Hospice of Hope volunteers grow a large cutting garden and deliver hundreds of bouquets to patients each year. Cathy Rock, a master gardener from Magnolia, sows a “baker’s dozen” of herbs each year to spice up her culinary efforts. Likewise, Barbara Napier, owner-innkeeper of Snug Hollow Farm & Bed and Breakfast near Irvine, maintains a “plot luck” philosophy—meaning, whatever is out in the garden is what guests will find on their dinner plates at this vegetarian establishment.
Although their gardens sprout different themes, these gardeners know that brightening someone’s day is just a snip away in a cutting garden, and that adding aesthetic value to a culinary garden may be as simple as sowing tri-color sage. These gardeners are among the thousands of Kentuckians who love to put their green thumbs into the Bluegrass to grow, share, and reap the rewards of tidy flower and produce patches that run the gardening gamut of theme gardens, whether it be cutting, herb, vegetable, or moon gardens.
For nearly 15 years, Louis Payne has been maintaining a dahlia garden. Each spring, he plants 75-plus bulbs; each fall, he digs up the bulbs and stores them in his basement so that he can set them out again when the weather breaks the following spring.
“We divide them—that’s how they multiply—and start over again,” says the lifelong gardener, who also puts in a vegetable garden each year.
Payne plants several varieties of dahlias in a bed that measures 50 by 100 feet.
“There is such a variety of dahlias—from little bitty ones the size of your thumb to dinner-plate size. They claim there are over 300 varieties, so you have a lot to choose from, and they perpetuate themselves. You raise them from seed because you have to keep them true to variety.”
Payne loves the low-maintenance dahlia for its long blooming season (from about the fourth of July until frost), vivid color palette, and, of course, its hospitable nature.
“People appreciate it when you give dahlias to them in the summer, more so than any other flower, I think,” he muses. “That’s what we’re living for, to raise the flowers and give them away.”
Such is also the case in Maysville, where a cutting garden at Hospice of Hope was established by volunteer Laurie Valentine, who saw land available behind the building and knew the flowers would cheer up the patients. The garden, which today consists of eight beds measuring 7 by 80 feet, each planted with sunflowers, dahlias, zinnias, mums, asters, irises, snapdragons, and daffodils, plus more than 100 rose bushes, has become a community-wide project. No less than 150 arrangements are put out each Tuesday during the blooming season, with 140 delivered to patients in private homes and in-patient rooms.
“Flowers always brighten and cheer,” says Wanda Paul, the volunteer coordinator who supervises 223 volunteers for an 11-county region for Hospice of Hope in Kentucky and Ohio. “Many times in nursing homes, people have given up everything, so the flowers are a priceless gift to them.”
Theme gardens aren’t just for those who want to raise flowers and plants for their beauty. Cathy Rock knows that at the root of all delectable dishes is a good herb or two. Each year, she sows a garden that is the envy of every chef worth his seasoning: four varieties of thyme, shades of lavender, fragrant spikes of chocolate mint, and salad burnet, a beautiful plant with a cucumber flavor. All these and more stock her produce pantry and give her recipes a lively zing.
Rock, who graduated four years ago from the Master Gardener program of the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, has always been interested in gardening but felt she needed a broader base of knowledge.
“I knew a lot about herbs, but I didn’t feel like I knew a lot about a broad spectrum of things: trees, shrubs, pruning, gardening, and theme gardens. The Master Gardener program had a little bit of everything and it was really good for me.”
This herb lover grows four varieties of thyme (French, Mother of Thyme, lemon, and orange), three varieties of lavender (Provence, Lady, and Fat Spike), and at least two varieties of mint (orange and chocolate). Also in her garden are lemon balm, lovage (an herb that looks and tastes like celery, only stronger), and hardy varieties of sage. A favorite herb is Upright Italian oregano, which she grows along with marjoram, also in the oregano family.
She grows chives, both regular and garlic or Chinese chives (“the regular have an oniony flavor and the garlic chives, of course, have a garlicky flavor”), and rosemary, as long as it is a hardy variety.
“Rosemary is not a true perennial, but there are hardy varieties for Kentucky, including Arp, Salem, and Hill Hardy. If a gardener is looking and they are not labeled, the rosemary with a narrow leaf is more likely to be hardy.”
Rock grows different varieties of basil for pesto and Italian dishes as well as for brownies and tea, and usually has on hand lemon, lime, and a clove-flavored basil, each richly aromatic and delicious in all sorts of dishes. She loves to grow and cook with French tarragon, an herb she favors for chicken and fish dishes and “any dish where you like a licorice flavor.”
For vitamin C, Rock grows parsley and will snip sprigs to generously garnish her dishes. She also grows lemon verbena, an herb that she recommends for cakes.
All of these herbs provide an abundant harvest and recipe-enhancing seasoning, but very little work or time on the gardener’s part.
“Herbs very much take care of themselves,” notes Rock. “Aside from trimming them and keeping them weeded, they are maintenance-free.”
Even with larger, more labor-intensive gardening, Barbara Napier says the investment pays off. Napier, a gourmet vegetarian cook, is the owner of Snug Hollow Farm & Bed and Breakfast, which sits on 300 secluded acres, one-half an acre of which is an organic garden.
“We grow the standard things: tomatoes and basil (we love pesto!), winter squash, beans (pole and little yellow French beans), spinach, and green onions, and we have a bed devoted to lettuces for salad.”
Until this past gardening season, Napier did all the gardening herself; this year, Meg Alexander from Indiana State University did a gardening internship at Snug Hollow. She planted herb, flower, and vegetable gardens and has since become Napier’s business partner.
“The things we grow we serve in the bed and breakfast, plus we like to serve things that reflect Kentucky, like wilted-lettuce salad. In the summer, we do a lot of stir-fry with green beans. We’re all vegetarian here, so you can imagine how many vegetables we use. I couldn’t possibly grow them all, although we grow a big part of them.”
Napier says that the benefits of a homegrown garden are bountiful: “You get to show off a good country garden. You (and her B&B guests) get to go to the garden and smell it. You get to eat what you make.
“There’s no reason not to grow. Kentucky has such a long growing season. Farmers here can have two whole crops of corn, for instance.”
A small-scale garden is manageable for the home gardener and requires no special equipment. Napier built a bed measuring 8 feet by 20 feet and planted it with tomatoes, lettuces, flowers, and onions. Her secret: succession gardening.
“When you pull something up, you pop something else in. In Kentucky, we’re really hard up to get onion sets for fall planting, so succession gardening is great for that. As you pull up a green onion, pop another one in and you’ll have green onions until it snows. The same applies to beans. You don’t put them all out at one time. You put out a row of beans, wait two weeks, and put out another row. You can do that in little bitty gardens.
“Learn to use your space and plant through the growing season. Gardening is fun, especially when you only plant what you want,” says Napier.
Each garden requires a certain amount of care and maintenance and all should begin with a plan, but the rewards can be as sweet as a tarragon variety that teases the taste buds with its anise undertones, as savory as a garlicky chive, or as uplifting as a brilliantly colored bloom.
PLANTING A MOON GARDEN
Jennifer Carrender, a certified nursery consultant for The Home Depot in Elizabethtown, began the study of horticulture as a 9-year-old in the 4-H program. Formerly the president of the National Junior Horticulture Association and a horticultural studies major at the University of Kentucky, she has the perfect garden solution for people who are too busy to garden and for those who are able to enjoy their gardens only in the evening: the moon garden.
“Moon gardens are based around white flowers and variegated plants that are illuminated by the moon in the evening,” says Carrender. “Some gardeners consider a moon garden one with plants that open or bloom in the evening, and that’s true, but there are other flowers, too—open-petal flowers like petunias, trumpet lilies, and angel’s trumpets that are all white.”
Although moon gardens really shine at night, they can be enjoyed all day with just a splash of color. The gardens should never be planted in shade, which takes away from the effect of the moon’s illumination, but can be quite dramatic when planted against a fence line with climbing vines as a backdrop, or in an island arrangement with taller plants in the middle and shorter ones bordering them. A touch of landscape lighting can be used for special effect—but not too much. The moon’s natural glow will provide illumination—and will coax the plants’ heady aromas into the garden.
“Russian sage gives off a wonderful scent,” says Carrender. “It’s a pale-blue flower with nice silvery foliage that is illuminated by the moon. Lavender is another good plant that has a silver hint and excellent aroma.”
To create a moon garden: remove turf, till, and remove grass clumps, edge for desired shape, and amend the soil, mixing in topsoil to sweeten and enrich the soil. Carrender always recommends that gardeners sketch out their plans before they begin planting.
“Then you just set the plants where you want them and dig the holes.”
Carrender says that space is never an issue with a moon garden: it can be as small as three or four plants in a container or in the ground, or as expansive as a 20-foot bed.
“In a minimum space, you could plant Shasta daisies along with white coneflower, and an annual, such as petunia. Add some silvery color with low-growing, silver mound artemisia.”
With a winding path through or around it, accessories like garden benches, statuary, and a water feature, moon gardens add year-round interest to the overall landscape.
“It’s your artistic expression,” adds Carrender. “Have fun with it.”
Recommended plants for a moon garden
Tall: Russian sage (silvery foliage and strong scent); white coneflower (White Swan); white climbing roses with varying scents of spicy and sweet; the dense, mounded Star Magnolia tree and white crabapple tree; the stately white lupine; the fragrant white butterfly bush; hydrangeas; spirea; rhododendron; azaleas; and viburnum.
Medium: hostas, particularly the varieties with white variegation on the leaves; silver mound artemisia; the massed four o’clock, which opens up at night; white dahlias; white tulips (for early spring color); the glowing, perfumed Moonflower; white Asiatic or trumpet lilies; lavender; climbing clematis vine; and delphinium.
Short or for borders: whitish and wooly lamb’s ear; dusty miller; evening primrose; pure-white Stargazer lilies; cosmos; white foxglove; impatiens; and white pansies and white mums for fall color.
Containers: fragrant sweet alyssum and silver licorice vine to spill over sides; white salvia planted in the center; petunias, including wave petunias for a cascading effect.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: HERB RECIPES
For cookie and roll recipes that use fresh herbs from Cathy Rock, click here: herb recipes